The Ego That Ate The Brainstorm: Why It's Almost Always Best to Kick Out the Boss
I used to work at this ad agency where the manager of the creative team, who considered himself the most talented guy in the place, was overly involved in the company's day-to-day idea generation process. He insisted on participating in every important brainstorm session the agency held; and being the top guy in the department, he got his way.
Don’t misunderstand—he did come up with his share of ideas, both good and bad.
But perhaps his most meaningful and influential contribution to the brainstorms was the inspiring way in which he would often open a session.
“You know how they say there are no bad ideas?” the boss would begin. “That’s not true; there are bad ideas,” the guy who held in his hands the fate of everyone's career would continue. “Really bad ideas. Ideas so bad, they should never be spoken out loud.”
You can pretty much imagine where the sessions went from there.
The more junior people in the room, or those whose bellies were just the least bit yellow, would keep their mouths dutifully shut—except to offer an enthusiastic, "Great idea!” when the boss would serve up his creative contributions.
Those of us with a bit more experience (or foolhardiness) would carefully toss our ideas into the ring, more often than not only to have them instantly shot down by our leader. "No, no. That's no good. Anybody else got anything?"
At the end of these sessions, we would almost always walk away with an idea. His idea.
Funny or sad, but definitely true, this true story exemplifies perfectly the single most devastating thing you can bring with you into a brainstorm—ego.
We often say, half-jokingly, “Kick out the boss” if you want to have a successful brainstorming session. While not always practical in real life, the idea behind the statement is nonetheless sound. Anyone who dominates a brainstorm, either due to seniority or just plain old arrogance and obnoxiousness, will most surely be its ruin.
The real magic and power of a well-executed brainstorm is the superior strength of the group mind—individuals, somehow working together in concert, towards a common goal. Bringing together diverse points-of-views, talents, experiences, etc. expands thinking, increases contribution and allows a well functioning team to build upon each other’s thoughts. The result: a greater breadth and depth of ideas that are far more inspired and developed than those any single individual could produce in the same time frame.
For all the brainstorming-naysayers among you, yes, there have been numerous studies that suggest individual ideation is more effective and producing ideas than group brainstorming. And no wonder. The vast majority of brainstorms are poorly planned, and facilitated by individuals who have had no formal training in the process. They are, in one way or another, like the dysfunctional examples I described at the top of this article: doomed from the start.
But when well prepared and expertly guided, a brainstorm is like a well-rehearsed symphony orchestra—each individual player sharing his or her talent and skill, working together to weave an intricate tapestry that only gets bigger and more beautiful as each new idea is introduced and expanded upon.
So if you are the one in control and just want to push your ideas forward (as ill-conceived and unenlightened as that management style may be), forget brainstorming. Save everyone the time, energy and humiliation, and just dictate the direction you demand.
But if you want to transform your organization into a super-human, innovative-thinking machine, do the right thing. Kick out the boss.
Or at least the boss’s ego.